I moved a lot as a kid…
…usually when I tell people that, the conversation goes something like this;
“I moved a lot as a kid.”
“Nope, preacher’s kid.”
(If they’ve been behind the scenes in church, they nod knowingly and soften their eyes a little. If they haven’t, I get an awkward stare before I change the subject to spare them.)
Going to five different elementary schools means all of my memories of that time are as the new kid. As if that wasn’t hard enough on my friend count, I fell in love with classical music in the sixth grade. I knew that was what I wanted to do from then on. Turns out that’s pretty weird for a sixth grader in the South, but to be honest, I didn’t really choose it as much as it chose me. It was, and is, as close to a “calling” as I’ve ever known. Some people live most or even all of their lives without ever really knowing what their calling is, and often it’s only clear when they look back over their lives. Kierkegaard said life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards. I didn’t understand life in the sixth grade, but I knew I’d be making music during mine.
That outsider badge I sewed on my chest from being the new kid got a little bigger and brighter when I added the classical musician thing to it. From then on, I’d have a fraternity of other music nerds, but I’d also have this “in, not of” kind of existence that eventually developed into what I now call my prophetic viewpoint.
It’s odd to call yourself a prophet. At least it feels like it to me. When I hear of a prophet, I used to imagine a fortuneteller or some kind of clairvoyant loner. Hairshirt wearers who live in the woods. But as I began to study the intersection of Christianity and Culture after my doctoral residency in LA, several writers were connecting the role of the artist with that of a prophet, an inspired teacher who speaks the truth. And as it turns out, prophets had (and have) a wide range of relationships with their community. Some were insiders and some were outsiders. They were mirrors both near and far. Both “in” and “not of.” The kind of people who could say what needed to be said, sometimes to the painful response of their audience and sometimes as a comfort, though always rooted in the honest, authentic truth of God as they saw it.
As for the hairshirt, many religious figures have worn them. They’re uncomfortable. They force the wearer to become accustomed to discomfort. To be aquatinted with pain and to begin to see the lesson in it. Their solitude and outsider status worked the same way for them. Most people (let’s call them normal) do everything they can to avoid pain. It’s a hardwired, default setting that keeps them out of danger. On the other hand, numbing pain brings it’s own dangers too, and the human race has developed some spectacular ways to numb pain. Sociologist Brene Brown rightfully points out that we can’t selectively numb. When we numb pain, we also numb joy. Pro tip, don’t waste pain. If you’re going to feel it, learn something from it.
What I learned from being an outsider was that I could see things from a wider perspective and speak to that big picture. I could be objective. Honest, even when it hurt. What I learned from being an insider was that everyone is living a story they feel deeply. Their story is all theirs. Completely unique and subject to their perspective. The more I knew their story, the more I could empathize and live life with them. I don’t know if this time in history is unique, but we seem to be so capable of curating the voices we hear and what we believe to be true that nothing outside of our bubble gets in without instantly being labeled as a threat and a lie, fake news, or maybe another version of the truth, a peculiar phrase coming more and more common today. It makes us numb to the actual, real truth. “Lords of our own skull-sized kingdoms,” as the late novelist David Foster Wallace once put it.
Have you ever taken one of those personality tests to determine whether you’d rather be liked or respected? Whether you place higher value on being loved or heard? Of course those tests are stupid and confining and annoying. They make us all feel like we’re being reduced to a label. I get it. But if a label is a hairshirt, mine says that I’d rather be heard than be loved. Perhaps more accurately, I feel loved when a person or group hears what I say and respects the thought, wisdom, and dedication I brought to what they are hearing. To put that in musical terms, as much as I love a roaring audience applauding or singing along at the top of their lungs, if I’m honest, the times when I feel closest to my calling are when the room falls silent and still and breathless. When I share my pain as a way to remind them of their own and to remind us all that we all hurt. We all laugh. We all hope. We all wonder. We all feel. And we experience all of these more fully, we hear the voice of God more clearly, when we watch and listen and accept the voice of the prophets in our lives.